“He was a smart, funny guy who liked to talk about anything all the time. He never met a stranger. He loved being around people and was always involved.”
That is how Judy and Dennis Shepard remember their eldest son Matthew, an openly gay university student who was found beaten and tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyoming. The news of his attack and eventual death conquered the airwaves and rattled the country to its core.
As the 20th anniversary of Matthew’s murder approaches, Judy and Dennis will not let their son’s memory be forgotten. They continuously advocate for hate crime legislation and anti-violence activism and began the Matthew Shepard Foundation on Dec. 1, 1998, what would have been Matthew’s 22nd birthday.
“We received thousands and thousands of letters, and many of them included some money to help us pay for medical bills,” Judy said. “We didn’t feel that was an appropriate way to use the money, so a friend suggested we file a nonprofit status to maybe help Matt’s community in some way. So, that’s what we did. The Foundation and the work we do gives me a purpose and a reason to get up every day. It makes me feel like Matt is still a part of my life.”
The Matthew Shepard Foundation seeks to replace hate and ignorance with understanding and compassion and empowers individuals to embrace human dignity and diversity through outreach, advocacy, and resource programs.
“We started this work through the LGBTQ lens because of whom it was concerning and the circumstances of the hate crime,” Executive Director Jason Marsden said. “We started with the focus on LGBTQ youth, particularly those who were rejected by their families or who were afraid to come out or felt their safety was not guaranteed in the environment that they were in. Because the Shepards received thousands of condolence cards with quite a few closed donations, they felt it was important to put that money towards helping others and speak up on behalf of kids like Matt who could be victimized.”
“You got to get up every day, so we might as well use it for positivity,” Dennis added.
Judy and Dennis were in Saudi Arabia the night Matthew was attacked. It took them almost two days to finally be by Matthew’s bedside at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“When we first heard about it, I thought it was a car accident, because all that was said was that Matthew had severe injuries, and we should get back,” Dennis said. “I don’t know how Judy got through that day. We couldn’t leave ’til 2:00 a.m. the following morning, because you can’t leave from Saudi Arabia and land in Europe ’til dawn. The seven-hour flight, then the eight-hour layover, and then another eight-hour flight to Minneapolis, all I could do was think about Matt. Once we go to Minneapolis, that was when we found out a little more about the true story.”
Judy continued, “We couldn’t really even call anybody to find out anything because of the time difference,” Judy added. “We didn’t know anything until we landed in the states. Because of the severity of Matthew’s injuries, he was moved from Laramie to Fort Collins.”
Matthew was pronounced dead six days after the attack at 12:53 a.m. on Oct 12, 1998.
Donna Fisher, Casper Theatre Company artistic director and Matthew’s childhood theatre teacher, was crushed when she first heard about Matthew’s death.
“I didn’t really believe it,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. Who would want to hurt this shy, wonderful kid? It was a real blow. After all this time has passed, I am still not over it, and I probably never will be.”
Fisher first met Matthew in 1989 when she directed a children’s theatre group called Latch Key Players.
“He was most enthusiastic about acting, but nevertheless, shy,” Fisher said. “He was like a sponge, always gathering information, observing but not talking much. He had a very sweet personality, got along very well with anyone and was ever-so-kind. All the wonderful things that were said about him during October of 1998 were true. They were not just things made up because of the situation. I really liked him from the very beginning.”
The last time Fisher saw Matthew was during the summer of 1998 at a grocery store check-out.
“Matt came to me very excited,” she remembered. “He told me he was back in town and if I had anything going on, he wanted to be a part of it. He said he missed us all, and he thanked me for casting him in his first production. After we left, I never saw Matthew again.”
Not only did the news of Matthew’s death make headlines across the country, but so did the trials of his killers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. Henderson received two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. McKinney, on the other hand, was facing the death penalty. The Shepards brokered a deal where he would receive the same sentence as Henderson.
“It wasn’t any kind of mercy or forgiveness for them,” Judy said. “I just wanted it to be over. I had to do some convincing. Dennis and I had quite lengthy and heated discussions. Then the defense approached the prosecuting attorney with the proposition that if we took the death penalty off the table for McKinney, then he would take the same sentence as Henderson and never appeal, which meant we would never see him again. No courtroom, no media, nothing. He would just be gone, and I just wanted it over with. I didn’t want to deal with it anymore, and I certainly didn’t want our younger son Logan to have to deal with it either.”
However, Dennis was initially in favor of the death penalty for McKinney.
“I wanted to fry the bastards myself,” he said. “Judy convinced me otherwise, and rightfully so. If McKinney was on death row, you’d have the appeals. Two, there’s always a chance he could get off with a technicality. Three, while he’s on death row, he’s considered a folk hero. Four, if he is snuffed out, then he becomes a martyr. Five, if something like this happens again, there will by copycats. This way, he is buried deep in the system, and no one really knows or cares.
“All of us believe in the death penalty, and we talked about it the summer before Matt’s incident,” he continued. “After what happen to James Byrd Jr., the four of us were talking and agreed that there are certain times that certain people need to be eliminated because they are a total detriment to society, and the best thing that could happen is to remove them.”
“Especially when there is absolutely no question of guilt and a total lack of remorse,” Judy added.
For the past 20 years, Judy and Dennis have shared not only Matthew’s story but a message of love with thousands of people. Their platform has helped several families who have lost loved ones to hate crimes, and their advocacy ultimately led to President Barack Obama signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act to mandate increased reporting of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and encourage state and federal investigation of violence in 2009.
“Everybody grieves in their own way, and families need to take care of themselves first,” Judy said. “Not everyone will want to become public figures or talk about the issues and how it will affect them. We want them to take care of themselves and their family needs first then consider what they can do to help others.”
Thousands of people have observed or absorbed their message, and when people in the progressive movement and the LGBTQ community start talking about hate crimes and bullying, the Shepards are the first people whom are thought of. They are always invited to sit on a panel and be part of a project.
“Judy and Dennis pushed for congressional legislation and initially from 1999-2009, the effort to pass hate crime legislation at the federal level had sporadic success and failures,” Marsden said. “It would pass the House one year, then fail the next, then be left out of the final bill because of the presidential veto during the Bush administration. So, there were continual efforts to raise that issue with the public. Judy partnered with the Human Rights Campaign and Anti-Defamation League to keep that issue on the front burner. It took 11 years, but legislation did pass Congress, and a lot of people credit Judy with her work behind it.”
Now that hate crime legislation has become law, the Foundation’s focus has been making sure those laws are being put into effect.
“We spend our time holding trainings for police officers, FBI agents, and district attorneys, and their staffs because hate crime laws are not that well known, and it’s reasonably recent,” Marsden said. “There are cases that were motivated by violence that could be subject to the federal hate crime law that’s named after Matt. There are some law enforcement officials who don’t believe in hate crime legislation, so we are trying to carry that message forward to make sure those laws can provide justice for victims and their loved ones.”
A former journalist for the Casper Star Tribune, Marsden became the Foundation’s executive director in 2009. However, he was involved from the beginning as a volunteer.
“There were a group of people in Casper who volunteered to open all that mail I mentioned earlier,” he said. “The Shepard’s family attorney gave them a conference room in the basement of this law office. We would sort the letters and donations and annotate them, and the Shepards responded to every one of those letters who offered a return address. I was one of those people opening letters; then I started going to their events. I interviewed Judy as a freelance writer for Out Magazine, and then we were on a panel together at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association in Atlanta one year. We got to talking more, and she said she wanted to expand their board, so I volunteered to lead a strategic planning session. Then one day in 2009, she asked if I would consider moving to Denver and coming on bard as the executive director. She wanted professional management in the office so could focus on her speaking and writing.”
Marsden’s decision to help with the Foundation was personal. He met Matthew at a mutual friend’s birthday party about a year and a half before he was killed.
“I noticed this short, blonde kid,” he recalled. “He did a double take look at me and came over and said, ‘you’re Jason Marsden from the Casper Star Tribune, aren’t you?’ I’m like okay, I guess this happens when you’re a small-town newspaper reporter. Matt wanted to know why we haven’t been putting anything in the paper about Afghanistan. This was early 1997, and I wish I would have known then that it was important.
“He explained that he had been to school internationally and had a lot of friends from the Middle East. He cared a lot about women’s rights in the Middle East and told me this was a country that used to let women work outside the home, and now they couldn’t go to school or leave the house without a male escort, and they were being horse-whipped at the soccer stadium as their system of justice under this religious tyrant. He thought people should care more about that.
“I thought, you know, this is a special person. This is not your ordinary kid from Casper, Wyoming. So, we started to run into each other at local house parties that constituted gay social life in the 90s, and we always ended up talking about politics. The last conversation I had with him was about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky being an impeachment investigation.”
When Marsden describes the kind of person Matt was, it is evident that he is not just talking about a random young man. He is talking about a friend.
“Matt was clever and witty with a warm personality, but he also suffered from depression from time to time and could be withdrawn,” he remembers. “He was very bright and loved languages. He was always excited to try his hand at learning a new language. He dabbled in six or more. Matt was ambitious. He wanted to make a difference in the world. His career goal was to go into relief or foreign service work. He wanted to be a diplomat or do something with the United Nations relief agency or some other organization that worked on human and civil rights around the world. He showed that from an early age. He was a peer counselor in junior high and he was associated with a lot of different cliques and groups in high school. He was a good listener. A good friend.
“It was also a real pain to have a political debate with him because he would take the opposite side of what he believed in to see if you could defend your beliefs. He enjoyed the sport of debate. He was reflective and wrote journals and reflected on his experience associated to his church. As a kid, I do think he had some of the elements of a person of faith. And he was short. It was hard to hug him because I have like a foot on him. He was just very warm and someone who truly cared.”
Communications Manager Sara Grossman has been with the Foundation for two years. After moving to Denver, she worked with One Colorado, the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group. She then decided to move on from non-profits and delved into freelance marketing and branding direction for start-up tech companies. Her decision to return to non-profit work was when one of her best friends was killed at the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen.
“When I got back from his funeral, I’m sure this was partially the grief, but I had this gutting sense that I can’t be working for these start-up companies,” she said. “Who are they helping? What communities are they serving? Of course, that was the grief, but I took a month off and spent my days reading Drew’s college journals. We used to go to Pulse all the time. I obviously needed to get back to some day-to-day work, so I went to the Colorado nonprofit job board, and five minutes before I got there, this position at the Matthew Shepard Foundation was posted. So, I sent in my resume and cover letter and contacted every other non-profit executive director I worked for in the city and told them they better tell Jason Marsden to interview me.
Grossman can say with complete certainty that nothing has affected her more profoundly than losing her friend and getting a job with the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
“This work is incredibly personal because of my connection to Pulse and being able to fight for the rights of the marginalized people who are bullied, and in some cases more severely than just bullied,” she said. “It has really helped my grief. It’s kind of a way of pushing my anger and anxiety into action.”
Although Grossman was only 13 years old when Matthew was killed, she vividly remembers the incident.
“I think there was a collective awakening around the country,” she said. “Matt could have been anyone’s son, brother, or friend. I think that’s why this story really took hold the way it did. And in 1998, who really knew a thing about Wyoming?
“It was a terrible shock when Matthew was killed because living in a place like Casper or Laramie, you don’t ever expect anything like that to happen on any given day or matter outside of your little sphere,” he said. “The fact that people all over the world was angry about Matt’s death and wanting social change. It was so remarkable and surreal.”
Since Matthew’s death, there have been advancement with LGBTQ rights and hate crime legislation, but the question that still weighs on many people’s mind: what would life be like if Matthew was still alive?
“I think he would be doing what we’re doing,” Judy said. “The question is, would we have made this much advancement? I don’t know. Losing Matt woke up the straight community and the gay community, but particularly the straight community, because this was the first time the story was about the victim of a hate crime. Not the AIDS pandemic or Pride parades, which is always discussed in some derogatory way in mainstream press. This is something that showed extreme hate.”
Hate crimes have been on the rise within the past two years. Not only within the LGBTQ community, but also among African Americans, Muslims, Hispanics, and many other marginalized groups.
In 2017, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs released a midyear report called “The Crisis of Hate” to address 52 anti-LGBTQ homicides, the highest number recorded in the organization’s 20-year history. Of the murder victims, 22 were trans women of color. Many killers targeted their victims through dating apps, and 53 percent used a gun as the murder weapon.
Many blame the rhetoric of President Donald Trump.
“The perpetrators feel that they are emboldened or even encouraged in our current political leadership,” Judy said. “It’s not just the president, but all of them. Using racist rhetoric in their campaigns, you see it every day. That is who they are catering to. The ‘haters’ in our country.”
Grossman thinks things would be a lot different if Hillary Clinton won.
“I took this job in September 2016 and thought Hillary was going to win and she would continue Obama’s work,” she said. “That’s funny now. I have watched the pendulum swing in such a disparaging and awful way. What else should we be doing right now except erasing hate? Let’s at least cover it back up a little bit. There are people in this country who were very much literally sitting in their basements or secret meetings and now they are out on the streets in places like Charlottesville. They are everywhere, and it’s one of those things that is just shocking. The bar has gone down so low.”
Because of today’s political climate, Grossman also believes it is extremely important for people, especially youth, to be involved in activism.
“A lot of people thought that after we secured marriage equality, that was it,” she said. “What else do we need to do? You got what you wanted. We see that the opposition has been tinkering away at our rights like being denied serving in the military or being denied a cake. Those things are absolutely unacceptable. We are not looking to preserve gay rights, and that is a buzzword the opposition uses just to piss people off. We are looking for equal rights. The same way, feminism is looking for women to be on the same plane as men. LGBTQ people are looking to be on the same plane as straight people and it shouldn’t be that difficult.
“The generation below me who grew up with eight years of Obama; they are 18 or 19 years-old now,” she continued. “They don’t remember anything else. You talk a lot about Generation Z being entitled. Damn right, and I hope they stay entitled. They are entitled to the protections they grew up with and to have a government and administration that is chipping away at what they grew up with and know, that’s why these kids are taking action. They are taking the torch and running with it.”
After the 20 years, the Shepards thought they would not have to continue to do this work and would be able to slow down.
“We’re not done yet,” Judy said.
“The ultimate goal is to close the Foundation because it’s not needed anymore,” Dennis added.
Matthew’s story has been told through various forms of media over the years. Writer Lesléa Newman wrote a book of poetry called “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard,” and his childhood friend Michele Josue made a documentary called “Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine.”
The most famous and most well-known piece is Tectonic Theatre Project’s The Laramie Project, a three act play by Moisés Kaufman that focuses on the residents of Laramie and their reaction to Matthew’s murder. The production has been performed in several high school and community theatres.
“When I first heard New York City theatre people were going to Laramie to get the real scoop, I was like, you got to be kidding me,” Marsden said. “This doesn’t make any sense. I know several of the people who were interviewed, and I didn’t think this was going to go anywhere. Well, these theatre people put out a play that is incredibly moving and shows the beating heart of this community. It became a profound piece of theatre, and I don’t think anyone they interviewed at the time thought that they were giving an interview for a profoundly important piece of theatre. I think they thought they were talking to a stranger, and I think that’s why they had permission to tell the truth of how they felt and experienced. Their words are going to be spoken on stage as long as stage theatre is around. I think it will become more of a period piece, and it will outlast us all, but it will keep Matthew’s story alive.”
The high school Matthew attended as a sophomore in Casper performed The Laramie Project a few years ago, and according to Dennis, three kids who were involved with the show came out because they felt safe in that environment.
“This show is a life-altering experience for the cast and crew,” he said.
In honor of the 20-year anniversary of Matthew’s death, many galas and ceremonies have or will be taking place. The Foundation partnered up with the Tectonic Theatre Project for a one-night celebrity reading of The Laramie Project on September 24 and this year’s Bear to Make a Difference Gala in Denver will commemorate Matthew’s life and the Foundation’s inception on October 20.
The Casper Star Tribune currently has an open call for people to comment on what Matt’s legacy means to them.
Grossman is most excited that the Foundation has partnered up with trans activist and Point of Pride founder Aydian Dowling for The Heart Challenge.
“This is geared for youth,” she said. A lot of schools and libraries and gay-straight alliances have participated in it because, like I said, a lot of kids who are seniors in high school right now weren’t even born. They know a lot of places do not have LGBTQ encouraging curriculum in their schools, so we have kind of taken it into our own hands to teach the lesson ourselves.”
Moving forward, the Shepards hope that Matthew’s story can be used to create atmospheres of acceptance and equality.
“I don’t think Matt’s murder will ever be forgotten,” Fisher said. “It was the most tragic murder in the history of Wyoming. There is no point in lying about what a wonderful person he was or to exaggerate, because there is no need. He was a sweet, considerate and kind person.”
Judy and Dennis will forever be proud of their eldest son.
“He wasn’t afraid of who he was,” Dennis said. “He would rather tell you he was gay in advance, so he wouldn’t get hurt by losing a friend if they weren’t okay with it. He was comfortable with who he was and his goals in life.”
“When he would meet people, he would be like, ‘Hi, I’m Matt Shepard, and I’m gay, and if that’s a problem, then we’ll just end it right here,” Judy added. “He was never afraid to be his true self.”
As for the Foundation, Marsden says he and everyone involved are working to better solidify Matthew’s legacy and the work Judy and Dennis have accomplished.
“The Shepards will reach retirement at some point, but they are as fired up as ever right now,” Marsden said. “At some point, we will have to decide what the organization’s mission will be after they retire or cut back on their efforts. For the time being, we are trying to institutionalize training for law enforcement and public safety officials. The Shepards are not going to give up as long as they think they are making progress. They are needed. We will see if America wants to change course again back towards diversity and acceptance, or not.”
For more information about Matthew’s life and legacy or the Matthew Shepard Foundation, visit the official website at matthewshepard.org. The Foundation can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and new voices, especially youth, are encouraged to reach out, contribute, and volunteer.